‘Joyfully subversive sex goddesses’: the artists who gave witches a haunting makeover

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‘Joyfully subversive sex goddesses’: the artists who gave witches a haunting makeover


We all know what a witch looks like. A gnarled old face full of warts with missing teeth and bright green skin. Then there’s the long black coat, the big black hat and let’s not forget the big crooked nose, sniffing the fumes rising from a bubbling cauldron in a room scalloped with cobwebs.

But that’s not what witches look like at all, or at least not according to a massive new art book released in time for Halloween. In this collection of female witches, from Renaissance paintings to modern Wicca, the caricature of the evil witch is turned upside down. Witchcraft, the latest volume from Taschen’s Library of Esoterica, finds evidence from artists as diverse as Auguste Rodin and Kiki Smith for his revisionist view that witches are generally glamorous young practitioners of highly sexualized magic. The cover painting, by Victorian artist JW Waterhouse, depicts the ancient enchantress Circe in pale, red-lipped Pre-Raphaelite ecstasy – and the fun keeps coming. The witches here are powerful feminist sex goddesses whose rites and incantations are gleefully subversive.

There is nothing respectable academic about Witchcraft. One of its editors is a witch herself, and it includes photographs of Wiccans from the 1960s and 1970s – practitioners of modern pagan magic. Consecration of Wine, Stewart Farrar’s misty monochrome photograph from 1971, depicts his wife, Janet, topless, filling a raised chalice in a modern ritual “intended to invoke the sacred union of man and woman – marriage alchemical ”. Another photo shows a group known as the “Farrar coven” lying on their backs to form a pentagram in a British garden in 1981.

Kiki Smith’s Pyre Woman Kneeling commemorates women who have been burned for witchcraft. Photograph: Martin Argyroglo / La Monnaie de Paris

Witchcraft’s thesis is quite convincing. In scouring the history of art to substantiate their modern pagan perspective, the editors point out something remarkable. Over the centuries, artists have created images of the witch far removed from the cackling stereotype established by witchcraft trials and remembered in popular culture today with no respect for the women (and some men) who have been. killed in these mockeries of justice.

A work by Kiki Smith attempts to show reverence to the victims of witch hunters. Her sculpture of a naked witch kneeling on an unlit pyre, spreading her arms in triumph: a woman resurrected from this story of misogyny. Typically – at the height of the “witch madness”, which lasted from around 1570 to 1660 – those accused of witchcraft were older women who lived in poverty on the fringes of rural communities. Better-off neighbors feared their so-called magical revenge. Investigators such as England’s infamous Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins believed witches met on a midnight Sabbath and ate babies, traded pets or “imps” and had sex with Satan.

This stereotype was just as unrelated to reality as the murderous caricature of the Jewish people of medieval Europe. Yet, flipping through this book, you quickly see that although elderly rural women were demonized and burned to death, Renaissance artists viewed witchcraft in a very different way. They associated it with desire, enchantment and feminine power.

Part of the volume features Satisfaction – a 1984 painting by Shimon Okshteyn of a triumphant post-coital “modern mermaid” as legend has it – exulting in a seemingly wizarding erotic power. It is juxtaposed with a 15th century German painting by an unknown artist of a naked woman performing a spell in her bedroom. A man appears at the door, spying on the naked witch. He’s in big trouble, you can’t help but feel it. He will receive a magical punishment just for seeing this witch dance during her private rituals. But warts, ugly nose, a familiar? No, this is one of the most sensual nudes in early Renaissance art.

The Four Witches by Albrecht Dürer, 1497. Photographie : © National Gallery of Art, Collection Rosenwald

This emphasis on the attraction and attraction of witches is even more explicit in the work of the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. In 1497, Dürer produced The Four Witches, an engraving of fleshy nudes dancing in circles. They are delimited with a daring that he learned on a journey through the Alps to Venice. There he met not only the city’s sex workers who also worked as model artists, but the new Italian art of classical influence with its cult of the human body. But Dürer’s own desires make him anxious. Even if he draws these naked women – as if he were describing the respectable Frauen of Nuremberg without their clothes – he seems to sense that they are witches. At the back of the room, an open door reveals the devil, his hanging fanged mouth open as he watches his minions from a cellar turned into a portal to hell.

Even when he portrays an old witch riding a goat backwards, an image much more closely tied to the witch-hunt stereotype, Dürer gives her a renaissance love streak to complicate matters. He is not really interested in persecuting old peasants but in exploring the artistic and moral tensions between his love of the flesh and his fear of sin.

A painting by his pupil Hans Baldung Grien gives two witches an even more graceful youth and beauty. They pose glamorously, more like models than agents of the macabre. Another great 16th century German artist, Lucas Cranach, was the most paradoxical of all. He painted women in fetish gloves or naked as charismatic beings with sexualized power – while as a magistrate he was allegedly personally involved in the execution of “witches”. In the sadomasochistic fantasy world of his art, he longs for everything he has persecuted in real life.

If artists could appreciate the witch that much – as women accused of witchcraft were burned for the threat they were meant to pose to Christian society – it’s no wonder that art has become more and more delighted with the subject after the persecution is over. In the 18th century, burning witches seemed like cruel superstitious nonsense. Instead, they have become fuel for fantasy. The erotic drawings of Rodin and his perverse Belgian contemporary Félicien Rops imagine other uses of brooms than theft. In a sketch by Rodin around 1890, a witch faces us, bare legs spread, rubbing her broom against her body with pleasure. Rops, too, depicts a young witch with a broomstick between her legs as she reads her spellbook wearing only her stockings.

Boston WITCH by Lauren Lancaster, 2017. WITCH was a 1960s anti-war group resurrected in 2016 to protest US immigration practices.
Boston WITCH by Lauren Lancaster, 2017. WITCH was a 1960s anti-war group resurrected in 2016 to protest US immigration practices. Photography: Lauren Lancaster

In modern women’s art, however, the witch has been reclaimed as a figure of power and freedom. Francesca Woodman strangely poses in a crumbling room in Providence, Rhode Island, almost floating, weaving the air with her arms, as if performing a spell. It seems to evoke the inhabitants of this haunted house. Maybe she summons the victims of old New England witch hunts. Betye Saar’s Window of Ancient Sirens installation uses mirrors and fire to summon her demonic sisters. His art openly embraces African and Caribbean magical traditions to enliven objects and re-enchant modern life.

The cover of Witchcraft, featuring Circe Invidiosa from JW Waterhouse.
The cover of Witchcraft, featuring Circe Invidiosa from JW Waterhouse. Photographer: Bags

Even the stereotype of the evil old witch dressed in black is transformed by feminist art. Members of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) – originally founded by anti-war protesters in 1968 and recreated in 2016 – hide their identities under their pointy hats in a photograph by Lauren Lancaster.

But the pleasure of witchcraft is its enthusiastic embracing of all aspects of its subject matter, from the sublime to the silly. You don’t have to buy a stuffed goat, set up an altar in your garage, and invite the neighbors to a swinging Sabbath to agree that witches are being manhandled three centuries after the end of the European witch hunt. . On Halloween, most of the monsters we revel in are unrelated to reality. Vampires, ghosts and Frankenstein’s monster are creatures of the imagination. But tens of thousands of real humans have been put to death in the name of the witch stereotype that’s touted for fun this time of year. And that just might be the most horrible thing about Halloween.

The Library of Esoterica: Witchcraft, edited by Jessica Hundley and Pam Grossman, is published by Taschen on October 31 (£ 30).

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